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PBS Criticized for Excluding Latino, Native Voices from WWII Documentary

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A coalition of Latino organizations have been criticizing PBS over a forthcoming documentary by Ken Burns on World War II because it ignores the role played by Latino soldiers in the war. The 14-hour film, “The War,” includes no interviews with any Latino veterans even though over 500,000 Latinos served in the war. The documentary also includes no interviews with any Native American veterans. We speak with Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, a University of Texas professor who has led the protests against PBS. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Welcome to all of our listeners and viewers around the country and around the world on this April 13th, Friday the 13th, and also a happy birthday to Amy, who has reached a milestone birthday, which I won’t mention the exact—the exact year, but it’s a milestone that I’ve already passed, so happy birthday to you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Thanks, Juan.

JUAN GONZALEZ: MSNBC and CBS Radio have not been the only media networks facing protests recently. A coalition of Latino organizations have been criticizing PBS over a forthcoming documentary by Ken Burns on World War II, because it ignores the role played by Latino soldiers in that war. The 14-hour film, The War, includes no interviews with any Latino veterans even though over 500,000 served in the war. The documentary also includes no interviews with any Native American veterans.

In response to the protest, Ken Burns announced this week that he would create additional content that focuses on the stories of Latino and Native American veterans. Burns said he would not make any changes to the existing film, but he vowed to create additional material to run in conjunction with the documentary. The War is scheduled to premiere in September.

AMY GOODMAN: Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez joins us now from Austin, Texas. She helped lead the protest against PBS. She’s the associate director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas. Since 1999, she spearheaded the U.S. Latino and Latina World War II Oral History Project. She’s also the editor of the book, Mexican Americans and World War II.

Well, Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you explain to us what has happened, the kind of pressure that was brought on PBS, and how you got involved with this to begin with?

MAGGIE RIVAS-RODRIGUEZ: We’ve been doing this oral history project of Latinos and Latinas of the World War II generation for—since 1980—’99. And as just part of what we always do is we look to see if there’s any public programming that deals with World War II, either conferences or forums or exhibits. We always look to see if there’s Latino inclusion, because often there’s not, and we always pick up the phone or send an email and offer our resources. We’ve interviewed over 550 World War II-era men and women. And it’s not just a military oral history project. It’s also women on the home front. It’s laborers who came from Mexico to work in our agricultural fields and our railroads. So, this was just something that we always do.

So, in mid-November, Ken Burns was giving a preview of the documentary at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, and my project manager, Raquel Garza, was there and saw the preview. And afterwards, the questions were: We noticed there were no women in uniform; did you include them? And the answer was no. Someone else asked, “There were no Native Americans. Did you include them?” The answer was no. And then Raquel took one of the producers aside and asked, “Did you include Latinos?” And the answer was no. So, within a few weeks, we heard from another source that they had also gotten the same information, so in January we were trying to nail it down. In mid-January we heard back from Ken Burns’s publicist that the documentary was not structured that way. The only groups that were given any special attention were Japanese Americans, because of their experiences, and African Americans, because of their experiences.

And I sent back an email to WETA—I had been in contact with the sponsoring station in Washington, D.C.—and to Ken Burns’s publicist, and said, “Well, the experiences of Latinos of the World War II generation were unique and rich and certainly should be included in this documentary.” And I outlined that across the Southwest into the Midwest, we had segregated institutions. We had segregated schools. We had very little political representation. We very, very rarely got to serve on juries for various reasons. And there was a real—World War II was a watershed for Latinos, for all Latinos, and we felt like this should be an important part of any documentary having to do with World War II, particularly one that’s 14 hours long, that took six years to make, and that is being broadcast on public broadcasting. So, for those reasons, we felt that this was an omission that we just could not tolerate.

We started sending out emails to people that we’ve made contact with over the past eight years in the course of doing our oral history project and said, “This is what we have learned. How do you think we should handle it?” And from that, you know, we started sending out emails, and we started getting our letters to PBS. Bob Filner, who’s a congressman out of California, was the first congressman to send a letter to Paula Kerger, that was stated very, very strongly, in which he said over half of the schoolchildren in California are Latino, and they need to know of the contributions of their people to our country.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Maggie Rivas, the film itself, as I understand it, actually is based on interviews with 40 different veterans from about four towns across the country. So, it would seem to me that, given the large number of people that were focused on in the film, that it is kind of astounding that Burns could not find one Latino veteran to focus on.

MAGGIE RIVAS-RODRIGUEZ: Yes. He focused on Waterbury, Connecticut; Birmingham, Alabama; a small town called Luverne, Minnesota; and Sacramento, California. And I’m not sure what his methodology was for finding people. But he was quoted in saying—in a New York Daily News story that ran on April the 11th, he said that “not one Hispanic … veteran came forward—nor did any Americans of Greek descent, or Native Americans or [any] other ethnic groups not represented in the primary 'War' story arc.” So, that suggests to me that what he did was he said, “We’re doing this documentary. Please come forward to be interviewed.” And I don’t know what mechanism he had for getting people, for, you know, promoting his interviews. I can tell you that it seems to me that, as a journalist, you don’t just wait for people to come forward to be interviewed. You have to decide how you’re going to frame the story. And if indeed you’re looking at how World War II affected our nation, I would think that you would want to include a much broader methodology of finding people to interview, not just whoever comes through the door.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, my understanding is that there were meetings between some—yourself and other leaders of Latino groups with Paula Kerger, the head of PBS. And did any of Burns’s people show up? And what was their initial response to your concerns?

MAGGIE RIVAS-RODRIGUEZ: We met with Paula Kerger at PBS headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, on March the 6th. We had already sent her a letter on behalf of, really, individuals. At that point, you know, the extent of our work was that we were sending out weekly updates about developments having to do with this issue. And Paula Kerger was there, and so were two other high-placed PBS officials. What they—they heard us, they listened to us.

And what the response was, in a letter that came from Paula Kerger in a few—about a week later, was that “We’ve listened to your concerns. Thank you very much for your interest in this issue. We’re not going to change anything. And these are some of the other initiatives that PBS is taking to address concerns in the Hispanic community.” And she outlined several different initiatives. And when we got that letter, we were incensed, because the initiatives that she was listing were existing before this meeting took place, and they were in response to previous problems that PBS had had with Latinos. So it didn’t address our concerns at all.

So, after that March 6th meeting and the letter that came from Paula Kerger, we really started working on getting people to voice their concerns. We set up a website called And through that website, we post letters that go back and forth. In fact, the original letter from Paula Kerger is up on that website, as is the letter from Bob Filner and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Our two Latino senators are up there. We wanted—

AMY GOODMAN: Maggie Rivas—


AMY GOODMAN: A quick question, looking at the AP piece that appeared in Baltimore Sun, it says, “A Ken Burns film, which is already done, will remain intact. Instead he will seek out Latino veterans to interview about their experiences to run either during breaks or at the end of each hour. The details still haven’t been worked out. Stories about Native Americans will also be included.” So, the documentary won’t change, but they will add content—they’ll add interviews in and out of the breaks? What exactly does that mean?

MAGGIE RIVAS-RODRIGUEZ: That’s a very good question, and we’ve sent Paula Kerger, asking her to mediate, to get a meeting with Ken Burns. We have a lot of questions. You know, this comes after—after PBS has been really slammed with emails and letters from people throughout the country, very long emails. Sometimes they CC us, and we get a copy of them. But I know that they’re getting a huge volume of emails beyond that, and letters.

So, when we got the letter from Paula Kerger this week, in which she said that they’ve agreed to make the changes, that it’s going to be within the footprint of this documentary, immediately it raised the question: Well, what does exactly this footprint mean? We consider it some progress that PBS is taking it seriously and that they’re going back and they’re saying that they’re going to make any changes. I don’t know if this is a question of semantics, that Ken Burns does not want to admit that he’s making any changes, but we really need to have some answers. We want to understand, if this is his vision, how does he envision this?

One thing I have to say, though, since this all has happened this week, it’s been a very fast week, but Ken Burns has now given a couple of interviews, one to AP, to a TV critic with AP, and another one to the Daily News. And in the Daily News, one thing that concerns us is that he has this—and I’ve got to read it. He says, “In The Statue of Liberty, Baseball and Jazz and others,” he said, “contributions by Latinos are duly and lengthily noted.” “Duly and lengthily noted.” I have got to tell you that we went back, because I didn’t know anything about Ken Burns before this started up, and I have not seen Jazz, and I had not seen Baseball, so we got—we looked at those jazz and baseball documentaries to really look at how much attention had been given to Latinos, because we were hearing that in a lot of emails. So we went back, and we found out that in the Jazz documentary, out of 14 hours of documentary, there were three minutes on Latinos. So, if Mr. Burns thinks that that means that they have been lengthily and duly noted, in three minutes out of 14 hours, then we have a different definition of what substantial means. And that’s one of the things that we really have to come and understand.

Now, what also concerns me is that Mr. Burns has been called to task for this before. Latinos have complained about his baseball series, about his Baseball documentary, and about his Jazz documentary. And one of the beauties of emails and electronic communication is that people are now starting to compare notes. I got an email from a man named Bobby Sanabria, who lives in New York City, and he sent a letter in response to the column that came out in the Daily News. And he says, “As a member of the jazz community”—he’s a drummer, percussionist, composer, arranger, historian, educator and two-time Grammy nominee for his own work as a leader—”and a native Nuyorican from the Bronx, Ken Burns’ inclusion of the Latino contribution to jazz was a small comment that Chano Pozo played congas with Dizzy Gillespie. He was booed at the International Association of Jazz Educators convention in New York City several years ago for this and other oversights in that one particular documentary. His spiel to you that the contributions by Latinos are duly and lengthily noted in Jazz is an outright lie.”

So, I think that, you know, we still have a lot of questions, and I have concerns. I have great concerns about what exactly he has in mind and about what he considers to be duly and lengthily noted—

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Maggie?

MAGGIE RIVAS-RODRIGUEZ: —because I’ll tell you, we are not going to be happy with three minutes. Yeah.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Maggie Rivas, I assume that this will continue, the battle over this will continue, and we will be trying to keep tabs on it. And, of course, I have to remark that PBS was scheduling to air this documentary in September during National Hispanic Heritage Month. But thank you for—



MAGGIE RIVAS-RODRIGUEZ: The original air date was going to be the 16th of September, which is Mexican Independence Day, which I think really signaled that there were—there was a lot of unawareness of Latinos who were involved in this.

AMY GOODMAN: Maggie Rivas, we only have 30 seconds, but last question: Do you think the speed with which this is being dealt with this week has anything to do with the controversy with Don Imus, who has now been kicked off both MSNBC and CBS?

MAGGIE RIVAS-RODRIGUEZ: This was something that had been in the works 11 days ago, after we met with Paula Kerger. She had told us 11 days ago, when she started reconsidering her position, that she would have a response to us by April the 11th. So, that part of it was not—it wasn’t affected by the Imus thing. Does it make PBS think a little bit more about their position? I would have to believe that it would have an effect on that.

AMY GOODMAN: Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, thanks so much for being with us, associate director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas, also runs an oral history project about Latino and Latina World War II vets. Thanks for joining us from Austin. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, Bill McKibben. Stay with us.

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